Pop culture shows pirates, especially older ones, as wearing gold hoops in their ears amongst their otherwise flamboyant dress. They weren’t simply for fashion. They served useful purposes.
Sea-faring folk often sported earrings as tokens from their travels or voyages, like young sailors to celebrate their first crossing across treacherous waters or a trek over the equator, etc.
They were also worn for superstitious reasons, such as believing they improved or cured bad eyesight since precious metals possessed magical powers to heal. They also assumed pierced ears would prevent seasickness or that the gold protected them from drowning.
In reality, silver and gold were worth the cost of a funeral and transportation of their body after death. And these precious metals are acceptable forms of payment across the world. Pirates also generally engraved their home ports on the inside of their earrings so that they could be sent home. Plus, it’s stuck through their flesh, so it won’t be washed off of them in the sea.
Pirates also drilled holes in coins to drape around their necks and wrists so that no one could steal their purse. The myth of burying their treasure is false; instead, they carried it with them, disguised as jewelry. What better way to protect their valuables?
Another reason for hoop earrings were also used to carry wax for gunners and cannons during close combat to plug their ears.
However, as the stories depict, fashion did play a role in what pirates wore. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the European ruling class made laws to regulate what common people wore to legally separate themselves. Pirates and thieves stole and purchased clothes to taunt the town, and the earring was another way of flouting these laws.
Author of Pirate: The Golden Age, Angus Konstam, said that most historians are not convinced that the iconic garb was what pirates really wore. Instead, an American artist, Howard Pyle, crafted the stereotypical pirate after Spanish peasants and bandits in the late nineteenth century for children’s books.
Either way, the bold statement of the gold earring makes the pirate all the more alluring as characters.